Bringing the American Justice System to Your TV

2009 September 24
by Darcie

We love a good courtroom drama – no, not necessarily the eBay scamming type of courtroom dramas, sorry Judge Judy, but real courtroom dramas with real actors and real scripts. But which ones are our favorites? And, more importantly, did your favorite make the cut?

Night Court

Sneakers with a judges robe? So wacky!

Sneakers with a judge's robe? So wacky!

While not technically a drama, per se – well, unless you count the romantic drama going on between Harry (Harry Anderson) and Christine (Markie Post) – Night Court gave us insight into a type of courtroom rarely seen, the night court, of course, which is full of eccentric and wacky characters.

The show centered on Judge Harry and his unorthodox ways presiding over a Manhattan night court. In an early review of the show, Time magazine called Night Court, with its emphasis on non-glamorous, non-violent petty crime, the most realistic law show on the air, so it has to be on this list if only for its realistic portrayal of the justice system during the time we’re all at home in our beds.

Plus, extra props for the addition of Bull, the huge but gentle bailiff, and John Larroquette as the sleazy and narcissistic prosecutor.

Law and Order

Buh buh.

Buh buh.

We don’t mean Law and Order: Whatever Spinoff NBC Has Thought Up Now. We mean the original Law and Order. You know, the one with Sam Waterson. This show makes our list not only because of its catchy “buh buh” noise but also because its prevalence for taking real life cases and turning it into compelling TV.

You got your law, that’s the courtroom drama, and your order, that’s the police detecting. It’s a pretty simple equation that has lasted for almost 20 years. That’s pretty impressive. Also, we like that we get to learn about the justice system so deeply—it’s almost like a backstage pass into the judge’s chambers.

The best part of the show is that every episode is neatly wrapped up. There’s no ongoing, agonizing investigation and a long, drawn-out trial. It’s so cut and dry. It’s very satisfying. We can watch entire marathons of this show—of any season.

You know you have a good show on your hands, when Sesame Street mocks it.

Matlock

Who can’t help but love Andy Griffith?

Matlock was a renowned, popular yet cantankerous defense attorney. He solved and won at trial almost every case he had taken, especially murder cases where everyone else was sure his client was guilty. Usually, at the end of the episode, the person who is sitting on the stand being questioned by Matlock is the actual killer and there is some very emotional dramatic speech.

It was so riveting, and we always tried to see if we could solve the murder before Matlock did. (We never did.) Plus, Matlock had a penchant for hot dogs, which always made us smile, no matter how stingy he was.

Perry Mason

The original TV lawyer

The original TV lawyer

But before Matlock there was Perry Mason, who was, perhaps, one of the first popular lawyers on American television with his show in the ‘50s. Played by Raymond Burr, Perry Mason, was, at the time television’s most successful and longest-running lawyer series. It has set the standards for every lawyer show to come since.

Much like Matlock, each episode’s plot was essentially the same: the first half of the show usually depicted the prospective murder victim as being deserving of homicide, often with Perry’s client publicly threatening to kill the victim; the body is found surrounded by clues pointing to Perry’s client. Perry’s client is charged with murder, but Perry establishes his client’s innocence by dramatically demonstrating the guilt of another character. The murderer nearly always broke down and confesses to the crime in the courtroom.

Our favorite parts of Perry Mason would be the ridiculous camera zooms on the actually guilty characters, who would make sour faces and visibly squirm in their seats. How would they ever evade Perry Mason if they made these awful faces?

Ally McBeal

Why is your skirt so short?

Why is your skirt so short?

Although maybe known for the downfall of feminism and the trend of inappropriate, short skirts in the workplace (and also, that awful dancing baby), Ally McBeal also had incredibly unique cases and trials (and relentlessly quirky lawyers) that no other show before had ever featured.  Okay, fine the unisex bathroom sticks out in our minds too.

But often merely a catalyst for the main characters’ action—a divorce trial leading to Ally’s own breakup—the trials were as memorable as the weird characters. There was the trial about customers who sue a restaurant because they were served horse meat. Another trial featured a nun who was run out of her nunnery for breaking her vow of celibacy. A little boy who sues God. Ally McBeal was like the Grey’s Anatomy of its time—a show centered around a semi-obnoxious skinny chick we still rooted for and the weird and unusual cases she must win. We were upset because it never got the send off it deserved—that, and Robert Downey Jr. being forced out of his contract because of drug abuse. His duet with Sting was incredible. Oh, yeah, remember that piano bar they visited every episode? Wow, Ally McBeal was really about a lot more than law…

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